Is “Thomas the Tank Engine” Subversive?

Remember the days when children’s toys were just toys? You know, that long-ago age when parents didn’t expect playthings to turn their progeny into the next Einstein. So why do so many adults now read into toys things that simply aren’t there? Recently, the Guardian’s Tracy Van Slyke criticized Thomas the Tank Engine, a popular children’s show about trains, as unsuitable for children, because of its supposedly capitalist overtones and borderline racism in the form of the differing colors of smokestack emissions.

As a son whose father loves toy trains, and as a father who encouraged his son to play with Thomas the Tank Engine, I find Ms. Van Slyke’s screed incredibly silly. But, as a reasonable adult, I should examine her concerns. Is there a hidden dark side to these playful stories? Might there be truth to her indictments of the Island of Sodor and the horrors perpetuated there?

First, there’s Sir Topham Hatt, the apparent robber-baron who, according to Van Slyke, “orders the trains to do everything from hauling freight to carrying passengers” (you know, tasks completely beyond what trains normally do). Besides his unreasonable treatment of his employees, she also finds Sir Topham Hatt’s dress and manner problematic. The wearing of a top hat, morning suit, and a portly appearance are dead giveaways he is a big fat capitalist. Really?  Methinks we forget the story was written and set in 1940s and 1950s England, when such formal attire was standard for railway conductors. And we fail to remember that the British railroads were nationalized in 1948, which means that Sir Topham Hatt is in fact a government employee. Hey, but what’s history worth when there’s outrage to be had?

Then we have the race card. “All the ‘villains’ on Thomas and Friends are the dirty diesel engines,” reveals Ms. Van Slyke in her tireless investigation. “I’d like to think there was a good environmental message in there, but when the good engines pump out white smoke and the bad engines pump out black smoke – and they are all pumping out smoke – it’s not hard to make the leap into the race territory.” Never mind that diesel engines do in fact produce dark smoke and steam engines do in fact pump out, dare I say it, whitesteam. But what are scientific realities, when it’s easier to cry racism and keep everything simple?

But perhaps I should be open to the idea that Thomas and friends may actually be unsafe for children. And in that regard, I believe I have identified the problem. The true conspiracy behind Thomas the subversive tank engine is not classism or racism, but the oppressive superiority of the English over their fellow inhabitants of the British Isles. Think about it. There are only a few trains of Scottish or Welsh origins, and a complete absence of Irish trains. Who holds ultimate power over these poor wee Celts? Sir Topham Hatt. And who does Mr. Hatt work for?  Why, the British government!

The two most prominent Scottish trains, Donald and Douglas, speak in stereotypical Glaswegian accents and are less competent at the tasks that come easily to the English engines. The Welsh engines are relegated to an entirely separate (but equal!) railway line. They are all patronizingly referred to as the “Four Little Engines” and are also overseen by a knighted English government employee, the Thin Controller. With the Scottish referendum for independence fast approaching, there is grave danger in exposing innocent children to such Anglo-dominant messages! Clearly when Reverend William Awdry created this imaginary world, he provided a social satire on par with Animal Farm or Brave New World, not a simple story to entertain children.

All of this is, of course, completely farcical.  There are no subversive messages in Thomas the Tank Engine. It’s just a story about trains that a man wrote for his son while he was sick. If you’re desperately looking for something to be offended by, you can probably find it – even in an innocuous children’s program. Take it from me, a man who grew up on Free To Be You And Me. (Marlo Thomas might weep over what that did for my political philosophical development.)

Wanting to help children and fight racism is a good and worthy cause, but focusing scorn on a children’s show is an affront to those who are getting up from their computers and actually doing it. If Ms. Van Slyke wants to “save children everywhere,” I would cordially invite her to get down from her soapbox, lay off the children’s programs, and turn on the news to learn about real threats to children around the world – threats that go far beyond the color of an animated train’s smoke.

Lawson Bader is President of the Competitive Enterprise Institute. He would like to acknowledge the contributions of Connor Currie and Phillip Bader to this column. As lads of Irish and Scottish lineage, respectively, they have long suffered the Anglo-created emotional effects of playing with Thomas the Tank Engine. This was an important first step in their journey to restorative healing.